Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Blowing Maggie Gallagher's Mind

herm, ferm, merm, hermaphrodite, homosexual, gender, same sex, fausto-sterling, intersexual
I came across an article that may very well blow your mind, and will hopefully have the same effect on traditional marriage advocates that salt has on slugs. (Yes, that does work.)

Anne Fausto-Sterling, a Professor of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University and Chair of the Faculty Committee on Science & Technology Studies, wrote an article 1993 proposing three additional human sexes. That's right, kids, humans aren't just available in vanilla or chocolate, they come in 5, or more, flavors.

She begins the article with an interesting anecdote from US history:

In 1843 Levi Suydam, a twenty-three-year-old resident of Salisbury, Connecticut, asked the town board of selectmen to validate his right to vote as a Whig in a hotly contested local election. The request raised a flurry of objections from the opposition party, for reasons that must be rare in the annals of American democracy: it was said that Suydam was more female than male and thus (some eighty years before suffrage was extended to women) could not be allowed to cast a ballot. To settle the dispute a physician, one William James Barry, was brought in to examine Suydam. And, presumably upon encountering a phallus, the good doctor declared the prospective voter male. With Suydam safely in their column the Whigs won the election by a majority of one.

Barry's diagnosis, however, turned out to be somewhat premature. Within a few days he discovered that, phallus notwithstanding, Suydam menstruated regularly and had a vaginal opening. Both his/her physique and his/her mental predispositions were more complex than was first suspected. S/he had narrow shoulders and broad hips and felt occasional sexual yearnings for women. Suydam's "'feminine propensities, such as a fondness for gay colors, for pieces of calico, comparing and placing them together, and an aversion for bodily labor, and an inability to perform the same, were remarked by many," Barry later wrote. It is not clear whether Suydam lost or retained the vote, or whether the election results were reversed.

So, almost a century and a half ago, the whole "what is sex? what is gender?" bullshit was going on- and we still haven't resolved it. Yeesh.

For some time medical investigators have recognized the concept of the intersexual body. But the standard medical literature uses the term intersex as a catch-all for three major subgroups with some mixture of male and female characteristics: the so-called true hermaphrodites, whom I call herms, who possess one testis and one ovary (the sperm- and egg-producing vessels, or gonads); the male pseudohermaphrodites (the "merms"), who have testes and some aspects of the female genitalia but no ovaries; and the female pseudohermaphrodites (the "ferms"), who have ovaries and some aspects of the male genitalia but lack testes. Each of those categories is in itself complex; the percentage of male and female characteristics, for instance, can vary enormously among members of the same subgroup. Moreover, the inner lives of the people in each subgroup-- their special needs and their problems, attractions and repulsions-- have gone unexplored by science. But on the basis of what is known about them I suggest that the three intersexes, herm, merm and ferm, deserve to be considered additional sexes each in its own right. Indeed, I would argue further that sex is a vast, infinitely malleable continuum that defies the constraints of even five categories.

You have to wonder what the asshats at NOM and every traditional gender role church would do if confronted with the sudden "appearance" of three additional sexes. Are males still on charge? Of everyone? Between a herm and a merm, who should stay home with the kids? Should ferms wear dresses exclusively? What would count as cross dressing for a herm? What exactly would be a same sex marriage in that circumstance? Would ferms and merms be able to marry, but merms and males not be able to marry? What about males and herms?

It fairly boggles the mind.

The incidences of merms, ferms and herms (intersexuals) may be a lot higher than you might think.

Not surprisingly, it is extremely difficult to estimate the frequency of intersexuality, much less the frequency of each of the three additional sexes: it is not the sort of information one volunteers on a job application. The psychologist John Money of Johns Hopkins University, a specialist in the study of congenital sexual-organ defects, suggests intersexuals may constitute as many as 4 percent of births. As I point out to my students at Brown University, in a student body of about 6,000 that fraction, if correct, implies there may be as many as 240 intersexuals on campus-- surely enough to form a minority caucus of some kind.
Where are all the DNAers on this issue? Hell, chances are, unless Euripides teaches at a very small college indeed, that he's taught, and likely is teaching right now, a herm, merm or ferm.

In reality though, few such students would make it as far as Brown in sexually diverse form. Recent advances in physiology and surgical technology now enable physicians to catch most intersexuals at the moment of birth.

Almost at once such infants are entered into a program of hormonal and surgical management so that they can slip quietly into society as "normal" heterosexual males or females. I emphasize that the motive is in no way conspiratorial. The aims of the policy are genuinely humanitarian, reflecting the wish that people be able to "fit in" both physically and psychologically In the medical community, however, the assumptions behind that wish-- that there be only two sexes, that heterosexuality alone is normal, that there is one true model of psychological health-- have gone virtually unexamined.

Oh, I see, we got rid of them. I will agree that the parents' and doctors' motives are undoubtedly pure, but it does seem a little ethically questionable to me. How do you choose a sex for someone? What if you choose wrong?

It appears that Fausto-Sterling may have met Maggie Gallagher.

But why should we care if a "woman," defined as one who has breasts, a vagina, a uterus and ovaries and who menstruates, also has a clitoris large enough to penetrate the vagina of another woman? Why should we care if there are people whose biological equipment enables them to have sex "naturally" with both men and women? The answers seem to lie in a cultural need to maintain clear distinctions between the sexes. Society mandates the control of intersexual bodies because they blur and bridge the great divide. Inasmuch as hermaphrodites literally embody both sexes, they challenge traditional beliefs about sexual difference: they possess the irritating ability to live sometimes as one sex and sometimes the other, and they raise the specter of homosexuality.

Damn those herms and merms and ferms, making us think about stuff. It's irritating. Running around, blowing the whole male/female, gay/straight, traditional gender roles and heteronormativity out of the water, how can Maggie oppress people if she doesn't even know what they are?


  1. Silly PF. Brown and its left-wing, Ivy League acolytes are for homo-loving, gay "marriage"-supporting SINNERS. All the REAL scientific research comes out of Bob Jones University and BYU. Duh.

  2. "All the REAL scientific research comes out of Bob Jones University and BYU. Duh."

    Don't forget Liberty University. I'll bet they are in the forefront of "creation research."

  3. This is fascinating. Utterly fascinating. And I agree- there are more than just two flavors to humanity. Sexuality, at times, seems as vast as space.

  4. PF,
    I have been aware of this for quite a few years.
    I have used this argument many times with anti gay bigots.

    There are kids born ever day with two sets of sexual organs.
    The parents are sometimes forced to get them repairative surgery even though there is no way to know what sexual identity the child will end up with.

    BTW, very nice work on this blog. Good research and all. Thanks,
    (e-lad from smrt)

  5. I saw, years ago, an interview with, I'm guessing, a ferm, or a merm. Originally, "she" (sarcastiquotes become apparent later) was born with a vagina and a 3" long clitoris, not quite a penis, but pretty close. Her parents had the clitoris cut off when she was little. (Fantastic! no orgasms in the name of normality.)

    Problem was, "she" was a lot closer to being a "he". "She" had a fully functioning vagina- and testes. No uterus, no ovaries. The doctors hadn't even bothered to tell her parents that, though they did know about it. It was just easier to cut off the clitoris and leave the vagina in place than it was to seal off the vagina and form a penis from the clitoris. (Leaving everything be was out of the question, you see.)

    Unsurprisingly, "she" became a "lesbian", and was terribly ashamed of it. Until she went to college, visited a doctor and was told what her real medical condition was. At which point, "she" was really fucking pissed about the whole thing. But no longer ashamed of desiring women.

  6. Yes. The old male/ female paradigm is just that.
    Luckily, these conditions are "relatively" rare. But that is no comfort to those that suffer with these anamolies.

  7. A couple of months ago, I covered a story from the New Scientist about a girl who was born with an XY karyotype, but who is female with a normal vagina, cervix, and ovaries because of a mutation on a gene on Chromosome 17. Although in this instance, I'm not buying that her phenotype is completely normal, her case goes to show that intersex people are real and that gender and sex do not fit into a neat binary. Of course, social consies would rather leave her in legal limbo where she's (say) legally male in Idaho, female in Washington, and who knows what the hell she'll be in Oregon.


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